Roads and highways connect our communities and are landmarks to the state's development, natural geographical features, and history. To learn more about the development of our transportation network, dive into our History of Texas Roads below.
Historic highways are not just about the roadways, but also about the gas stations, drive-in theaters, bus stations, tourist courts and motels, diners, signage and much more. Below are useful publications about these topics.
- The Development of Highways in Texas: A Historic Context of the Bankhead Highway and Other Historic Named Highways (36 MB)
- Historic Road Infrastructure of Texas 1866-1965 (National Register MPS, 11 MB)
- Physical Evolution of Named Highways in Texas (7 MB)
- National Register Evaluation Criteria for Road-related Resources (11 MB)
Road-related Property Types (18 MB, table format) For all road-related property types, use the Road-related Property Types table. However, if you are interested in a particular property type, see below for the extracted pages.
- Auto Businesses (auto dealership, auto repair shops, auto parts stores)
- Food Businesses (restaurants, food stands)
- Gas Stations (by time period, company affiliation)
- Overnight Accommodations (hotels, campsites, tourist courts, trailer parks, motels, company affiliation)
- Roads (roadway, curbs, medians)
- A Field Guide to Gas Stations in Texas (updated 2016; 35 MB)
- Historic Texas Gas Stations by Texas Department of Transportation Environmental Affairs Division
- A Guide to the Research and Documentation of Historic Bridges in Texas (6 MB) For more information about bridges in Texas, please go to our Historic Bridges in Texas webpage.
- Texas Department of Transportation-surveyed historic bridges across Texas (National Register eligible and listed)
- Historic-age Motels in Texas from the 1950s to the 1970s: An Annotated Guide to Selected Studies (8 MB)
- A Field Guide to Industrial Properties in Texas (14 MB)
The earliest routes used by Texas inhabitants followed natural features, such as rivers and ridge lines and connected travelers to natural resources and trade opportunities.
Spanish Colonial Routes
Early Texas road networks originally followed Native American trails, early Spanish explorers’ trails, and Spanish colonial routes that connected the missions and presidios throughout the territory. These trails, which connected early settlements like San Antonio, Goliad, Victoria, East Texas, and Louisiana, avoided natural obstacles, were near food and water, and crossed streams at shallow points. Some settlements struggled to survive due to conflicts with indigenous groups and extreme weather conditions. The most frequent users of these early roads and trails were explorers, pioneers, and traders. Up until the 1800s, transportation and road routes were limited and neglected. Read this Medallion article to learn more about the Camino Real from this era.
From Mexico's Independence until 1836
Once Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, Anglo-American migration established new routes throughout Texas. Land promoters began to survey and map major settlement roads. The majority of pioneers settled along rivers for access to trade and transportation. However, rivers were only navigable if there were heavy floods, and this resulted in seasonal travel and limited commerce trade. Between 1821 and 1836, Texas’s population increased more than 700 percent. Land travel remained difficult due to neglected roads and trails.
Republic of Texas from 1836 to 1845
Following Texas’s independence in 1836, the new government undertook a few transportation improvements. They approved of a Central National Road that created roads between county seats, but it was unable to support roadwork financially. Instead, the Republic relied on counties and settlement communities for road construction, improvement, and maintenance. Immigration continued at a steady pace, but the Republic continued to remain a thinly populated frontier with dispersed settlement. There was little need to improve roads because people did not need to travel far and relied on freighters and stagecoaches to deliver mail, goods, and supplies.
Texas from 1845 to the Civil War
When Texas joined the United States of America in 1845, it was a slow process to link the state’s roads and railroads to its new country. In 1848, the state passed legislation that provided two classes of road for Texas (a first class and second class), and allowed county courts to construct new roads, discontinue others, and classify roads. These roads were often muddy, which slowed down traffic and trade, preventing economic growth for the agriculture industry. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Texas’ transportation networks included railroads, roads, stage routes, trails and waterways. These systems helped move people, mail, and supplies around the state.
Because Texas required less rebuilding after the Civil War compared to other Confederate states, local governments could continue developing roads. In 1866, state legislation removed control of road development from the county courts and gave it to a new police court. This new court took all the roadwork completed by the county courts and used convict labor to construct new roads and bridges.
More organized cattle trails lasted into the 1880s, where millions of cattle were driven to Kansas or Missouri to be shipped to Chicago and its meat packing industry. Some of the most important cattle corridors included the Chisholm Trail, the Western Trail, and the Goodnight-Loving Trail. While there were no roads or bridges built along these cattle trails, many of the later roads followed some of these routes. The cattle trails helped restart Texas’ economy, especially because of the lack of consistent rail lines, which made it cheaper to ship the cattle from Kansas than from Texas.
Railroads were a primary improvement in Texas after the Civil War. It was not until 1873 that Texas railroads finally connected to the national rail system. Railroads were the primary source of transportation in Texas in the late nineteenth century. Many communities relied on railroads since residents mostly used roads to travel between farms, agricultural processing centers, and towns. Roads consisted of earthen trails, and county governments used railroads to provide money to construct better roads and bridges.
State Involvement in Roads
In 1870, the Texas Legislature returned road and bridge construction to the county court system. The 1870s saw an inconsistent and limited road and bridge construction as the Texas Legislature frequently reconsidered funding mechanisms. At this time, mail delivery schedules were key in determining road classification. Texas’ 1876 Constitution reorganized county government. It established commissioners’ courts to govern the county and control road construction, but it also restricted the local governments’ ability to raise funds for road and bridge projects; they could not use taxes or bonds to raise money for these improvements.
As the population continued to rise into the 1880s, the need for public services and goods in both urban and rural settings increased the demand for better roads and bridges, especially with growing users of automobiles and bicycles. By the early 20th century, counties gained more authority to finance road and bridge construction and improvements. There remained a disparity between urban and rural areas. Urban cities experienced rapid growth and would spend their money on paved roads and inter-urban electric railways for their citizens.
Federal Involvement in Roads
In 1893, the federal government formed the Office of Road Inquiry within the United States Department of Agriculture to become more involved in road construction. In 1899, it was renamed the Office of Public Road Inquiry. The Office of Public Road Inquiry was a source of road-related information to address construction and administration. As federal and state governments began to focus on developing more roads, Texas resisted creating a statewide system and statewide transportation department. As the population spread out across the state, Texas needed better roads further out from the cities to support people and transport supplies. Cities were concerned with conditions within their city limits, but counties were also interested in their own needs. Due to little cooperation between cities and counties, there was no large-scale planning to create a highway system. Between the high price of construction and counties having different budgets and priorities, Texas road conditions remained inconsistent, and rural areas faced inadequate drainage systems or bridges. However, new road and bridge technology and techniques flourished across the country. Counties upgraded and altered roads as they began to update, construct, or reuse new bridges.
Throughout the 20th century, roads in the United States improved dramatically, with major private and public construction initiatives and improvements in technology. Increased use by motorists, cyclists, and commercial transport led to greater need for reliable, safe road facilities. Local and federal governments all had a hand in building and maintaining the important road infrastructure. Major eras in development include:
This Transcontinental Highway map dates to 1918 and shows the major routes of the early-20th century transportation network. This map is part of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) collection. Texas agencies like TSLAC and the General Land Office serve as repositories for important historical maps from all eras of Texas development.
Good Roads Movement
This concrete obelisk marks the former Ozark Trail in downtown Tulia. Courtesy of Mead & Hunt, Inc.
e early 20th century, at the same time government offices were working to improve road conditions, private and grassroots efforts tied to the Good Roads Movement provided more options for the traveling public. By the 1920s, private promotional organizations and interest groups had established numerous highways that crossed the nation. These did not always provide the shortest or a direct route between cities, though, and some trails overlapped each other. World War I raised concerns for private promoters of named trails, because they were afraid if they made any road improvements, the government would take control of them for national defense. After the stock market crash in 1929, President Roosevelt authorized a series of New Deal programs that provided federal funding for road projects to increase employment. The New Deal era resulted in the Texas Highway Department gaining more control over the state highways. See our Sidebar Interests page for more information.
The rise in bicycle and automobile use and the desire to improve mail routes and connect farms to markets led to the Good Roads Movement Era. This era saw a rise in activists across country that formed booster groups to improve roads. In 1902, the Texas Farmer’s Congress declared for state control of roads, and the Texas Democratic Party added a state road network to its political platform. A year later, The Texas Good Roads Association (TGRA) was established, and it raised awareness to locals and lawmakers for road improvements as well as a statewide system.
During this era, booster groups developed, constructed, maintained, and provided transcontinental and regional highways across the country. These groups used existing roads and established new ones that followed railway lines, and it resulted in the state’s first long distance roadway network. Due to the commercial success of these new roads, communities paid subscriptions to road associations and promised to maintain and improve them.
Some of the roads constructed during this era include the Meridian Highway, Old Spanish Trail, and Dixie Overland Highway. Another example from this era is the 1915 Austin to San Antonio Post Road (A-SAPR). The A-SAPR began in downtown Austin and continued to downtown San Antonio crossing five counties: Travis, Hays, Comal, Guadalupe, and Bexar. This 71-mile roadway followed earlier routes used during the Spanish exploration period, the Republic of Texas, and early in Texas’s statehood.
Texas Highway Department
At the turn of the 20th century, many of Texas’s roads remained primitive and disconnected. As an effort to find solutions, the Texas Legislature made the counties' road districts responsible for their own roads and bridges. In 1905, the Legislature created the Office of Public Roads (OPR); it issued material specifications, testing procedures, construction guidelines, and bridge specifications. OPR was renamed in 1915 as the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR).
Federal Aid Road Act of 1916
The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 established the Texas Highway Department (THD) in 1917. With it came a centralized system of funding and building standards, with aid to counties for construction and maintenance. This law shifted control away from local government and provided money to build rural roads, as well as trails in national forests. States gained power to design and supervise improvements, but all federally funded projects had to follow federal standards.
In its early years, the THD had little power over road and bridge construction in Texas because the Texas Legislature wanted the counties to maintain control over highway routes. The counties would submit applications for state and federal aid, but state and federal money was only distributed after the roadwork was completed and inspected by THD engineers.
In its first eight years, the THD focused on state highway designations, developing road and bridge design standards, and building a funding foundation for the department. When designating state highways, THD worked with counties and chose roads following existing roads and large route systems designated by highway associations.
These state highways were designed as trans-Texas routes that extended across the state connecting commercial centers, but World War I halted implementing the state highway network. One example is State Highway 2, which was originally known as Southern National Highway. It in Orange and ended in Del Rio. It currently follows today’s IH 10 and US 90.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921
The passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1921 changed the control of road and bridge projects and upkeep from county and local governments to the THD. It also created a national highway system and forced each state to build a network of state highways to be later incorporated into the national system. Foreseeing the difficulty in allowing counties to control federal projects, the 38th Texas Legislature of January 1923 gave the THD administrative control over the state highway system.
Even though this act set up the foundation for a federally assisted road network, it did not actually develop the national highway system. The American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), an organization formed in 1914, proposed and adopted a uniform national U.S. Highway system to create consistency across the country. This national numbering system took effect in 1926. Many of these U.S. highways followed existing named highway routes.
State Highway Act of 1925 and Reorganization of THD
The Robbins v. Limestone County ruling led to the 1925 State Highway Act. This act gave the THD complete control over state highway construction and maintenance. However, due to lack of state funding and demand for roads, Texas still had to rely on county assistance to help build roads until 1932.
In the late 1920s to the 1930s, the THD faced a variety of issues, including a scandal revolving around misappropriation of funds where the Texas Highway Commission would redirect funds to highways in good conditions instead of those that needed the money. Following this scandal, Governor Dan Moody appointed a new Texas Highway Commission in 1927 to cleanse and reorganize the THD. In 1928, the THD established the Bridge Division to oversee the state’s bridge program, and its purpose was to pay attention to traffic and safety factors, bridge designs, and loading capacities.
The Great Depression Era
The Great Depression created new challenges for the Texas Highway Department (THD), which had just gained some organizational stability and professionalism. Despite the social struggles, this era was still filled with road improvements and changes in Texas. There was an increase in federal funding through federal work-relief agencies, and this funding aided THD projects. If it the federal government had not aided the THD, Texas would have likely struggled to maintain a road building program during the first few years of the Great Depression. The Texas Legislature also contributed work-relief highway construction, but its efforts could not meet the demand.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, he did not hesitate to institute his New Deal programs and policies to stabilize the nation’s economy and increase employment. Texas received substantial federal relief funding from these New Deal programs, especially because President Roosevelt supported massive road construction projects. This funding replaced the money originally contributed by the counties.
First New Deal Programs
- Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) (1933–1935)
- Civil Works Administration (CWA)
- National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) (1933–1940)
- Public Works Administration (PWA) (1933–1939)
- Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1934
- Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935
- Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) (1933–1942)
By the mid-1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal acts as unconstitutional because they stretched the boundaries of the federal government’s power. This forced the reorganization of federal world relief projects, which affected road construction in many ways. The National Recovery highway program was shut down, but its projects continued to be funded until 1940. Congress revived the federal-aid highway program, and after the FERA was dissolved in 1935, the federal government stopped offering direct grants to states and localities for relief payments. Roosevelt’s administration created the “Second” New Deal programs to replace the first ones.
Second New Deal Programs
- Works Progress Administration/Work Projects Administration (WPA) (1935–1943)
- National Youth Administration (NYA) (1935–1943)
Consequences of the New Deal Programs
The FDR Presidential Library has an interactive chart showing key programs and figures from the New Deal era. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential LIbrary and Museum
Road policy from the Depression-era and WPA allowed the THD to expand its authority over urban and rural Texas roads both outside and inside the existing state system. Due to the conditions of the Great Depression, many local communities lost the ability to afford road maintenance. In 1937, the THD took control of all highways in rural towns with a population less than 2,500.
As the nation’s economy improved and the Roosevelt administration cut the WPA work force in half in 1937, the THD organized to takeover WPA funding for Texas road construction. During the last years of the Great Depression, the THD took control over rural road construction. The THD also began planning a state Farm-to-Market (FM) road system for after World War II. Texas counties regained some ability to fund state highway system during the 1940s and 1950s, but they were never able to reclaim power over Texas roads. For more information on New Deal programs in Texas, read about bridge and parks construction.
State Highway (SH 16) is a legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project from the New Deal era. Located in Palo Pinto County, the WPA constructed this 8.4-mile segment between 1940 and 1942 as part of a 27.75-mile long project. Situated between the towns of Brad and Graford, the corridor runs north-to-south on the east side of Possum Kingdom Lake, from SH 254 to the road’s southern limit at Brackeen Drive. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) determined this part of SH 16 eligible for the National Register as a historic road corridor with features from the Depression era, such as a masonry arch bridge and guard wall.
The WPA funded three projects in northwest Palo Pinto County: the construction of Morris Sheppard Dam (also known as Possum Kingdom Dam) between 1938 and 1941, haul roads to connect the dam to nearby towns, and the 27.75-mile road to provide access to the east side of Possum Kingdom Lake.
To complete the roadway, the Texas Highway Department (THD), now TxDOT, submitted a project proposal to the WPA, with three major elements: construction of a few road segments, construction of a new bridge across the Brazos River, and upgrade of Possum Kingdom-Graford Road. The WPA authorized the project on August 16, 1940 to focus on upgrading or improving existing transportation networks. While the U.S. did not enter World War II until December 1941, this was a time agencies rarely approved new road projects as the result of the international conflict.
Although road crews built a number of stone culverts along SH 16, the masonry bridge was their largest undertaking. Because flooding was common along this portion of the Brazos River when water was released from the Morris Sheppard Dam, project planners invested additional money, time, and materials to build a masonry arch bridge that could withstand substantial flooding without significant damage. The THD submitted an additional proposal in May 1941 to construct a guard wall, because the winding road was a hazard to traffic, and it was completed in June 1941. The crews completed the entire project by November 1942; WPA records demonstrate that it would not have been possible without WPA funding.
Because steel beams were not readily available during World War II, project planners proposed masonry construction instead of steel. Masonry construction requires little steel support, and a limestone quarry at the top of the Kimberlin Mountain gave crews easy access to stone. This type of construction also required hand workmanship, which followed the rustic aesthetic the National Park Service (NPS) promoted during this period.
As typical for a WPA project, the workforce brought on to build SH 16 was made up of skilled, intermediately skilled, and unskilled men. The workers excavated roughly 100,000 cubic yards of earth and applied 75,000 cubic yards of caliche based, high-type, all weather asphalt surface. The workers salvaged lumber from a nearby project to use as the formwork for the reinforced concrete slab superstructure.
TxDOT identified a total of 18 contributing resources within the portion of SH 16 nominated to the National Register. These features include 16 masonry culverts, one masonry guard wall, and the masonry arch bridge. The non-contributing resources include five widened masonry culverts and reinforced concrete pipe culverts.
There are 21 masonry box culverts made of locally-quarried, rough-hewn limestone blocks that vary in sizes. The substructures of the culverts are stone abutments and stone wing walls, and the superstructure is reinforced concrete. Around 1985, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) widened five of them on both sides with reinforced concrete box extensions. The wing walls no longer exist on these five culverts, and they do not contribute to the resources on the nominated portion of the highway. The other 16 culverts are still in their original condition and retain their masonry abutments and wing walls.
The guard wall is located on the Kimberlin Mountain, and it is roughly 1,800 feet long. It consists of two foot tall horizontal wall consistently spaced 4-foot-tall vertical elements or crenellations. Similar to the culverts, the guard wall is made of local, rough-hewn limestone blocks with thick mortar and tooled, concave joints. The wall is damaged in several places mostly because of large vehicles hitting it. There were originally 129 vertical elements or crenellations, but 41 are missing, replaced, or repaired. Of the 129 vertical crenellations, 88 remain unaltered and retain their original condition.
The most significant masonry feature on SH 16 is the stone arch masonry bridge. This is an 18-span, closed spandrel, earthen-filled, masonry Roman-arch bridge with concrete slab superstructure. The bridge is 433 feet and 4 inches long, and it has two 11-foot wide lanes with no shoulders. The deck is 25 feet wide from outside of the curb to outside of the curb. The voussoir arches with keystones taper to stone piers that vary from 3 to 5 feet wide. The stone piers site on bedrock foundations, and arch spans vary from between 23 to 30 feet long. The bridge is also constructed of local, rough-hewn limestone in irregularly sized blocks. The superstructure and substructure act as one unit, so the deck cannot be dislodged from the arches during flooding events. TxDOT added concrete to help stabilize the masonry wing walls, but the masonry features are still visible. At the northeast corner of the bridge, the wall is damaged, most likely from passing vehicles, and portions of the wall are missing. However, the bridge is a contributing resource to SH 16’s significance.
TxDOT built the reinforced concrete pipe culverts in 1963 as part of a drainage upgrade and minor widening project. Unlike the masonry culverts, these reinforced concrete pipe culverts are standardized, prefabricated, cylindrical units no larger than 3 feet in diameter. They have concrete wing walls with no masonry components. They are non-contributing resources to the nominated portion of the highway.
What makes SH 16 Eligible for the National Register of Historic Places?
In order for any prehistoric or historic site to be eligible for the National Register of Historic places, it must meet at least one of the four criteria:
A. The property is associated with significant events that made a contribution to our history.
B. The property is associated with a significant person from our past.
C. The property embodies distinctive physical characteristics of a type, period, method of construction, represent the work of a master, possess high artistic values, or represent a significant and distinguishable entity.
D. The property contains or is likely to contain important prehistory or history information.
Based on the requirements outlined in the Historic Road Infrastructure of Texas Multiple Property Documentation Form, this segment of SH 16, built between 1940 and 1942, is eligible for its association with the WPA’s Depression-era projects (Criterion A) and for its demonstration of exceptional hand-labor workmanship and engineering through its masonry culverts, masonry guard wall, and masonry arch bridge (Criterion C).
For more information on what it means to be eligible for or listed in the National Register of Historic Places, click here.
As a result of improvements along SH 16, TxDOT nominated this segment of the road, which was listed by the Keeper of the National Register in April 2015. This work was part of mitigation for the project, which the Texas Historical Commission reviewed under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. To learn more about the laws that protect significant historic properties, click here.
State Highways and Standard Plans: 1944 to 1957
This period following the Second World War saw rapid road construction that relied on standardized plans. This changed the face of Texas’ highways and roads. With the enactments of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 by the U.S. Congress and the Colson-Briscoe Act by the Texas Legislature in 1949, new funding became available to increase road construction in Texas. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944 also designated a new road system to connect major cities with industrial facilities and military installations across the country.
During this time, engineers made major strides in highway design, including the creation of controlled-access highways. Agencies such as the Texas Highway Department (THD) discovered deficiencies with previous highway designs, which led to many roadway upgrades in the post-World War II boom period. In urban areas, road designers opted for rigid pavement despite its cost, because it required little to no maintenance and could last 20 to 40 years. THD still faced a shortage of supplies, and they avoided using high quantities of steel because it was expensive. This led them to the development of two new reinforced concrete bridge types, the pan-formed girder bridge and the FS slab bridge, because they required little steel.
Many of the highways formerly named and promoted by private road associations were upgraded and integrated into new numbered state highways, such as State Highway (SH) 1, formerly known as the Bankhead Highway, SH 2 (Meridian Highway), and SH 3 (Old Spanish Trail). Controlled-access roads were designed to limit accessibility to property along intersecting roads and intersecting roads.
Following construction of the Gainesville Freeway, THD built the Gulf Freeway in 1948 between Galveston and Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Freeway in 1949. THD upgraded many two-and roads to four-lane facilities, built many controlled-access thoroughfares, and expanded the farm-to-market road system; when it was completed, roughly 60 percent of the state’s rural residents lived within a mile of a paved road.
Interstate Highway System: 1957 to 1980
Between 1957 and 1980, federal and state transportation agencies began planning, designing and constructing the Interstate Highway System that was authorized by the Federal Highway Aid Act of 1956. The mass production of steel and concrete enabled substantial road improvements, and engineers worked to upgrade and build new farm-to-market roads.
To avoid purchasing new right-of way or constructing new corridors, THD and other transportation agencies built most of the interstate highways and intrastate freeways on existing roads. Many older highways were subsumed into larger highways or partially abandoned; some segments of these older highways still exist along old roadway alignments. The original named highways, which had become part of the state highway network, were now incorporated into the interstate system. Parts of the Bankhead Highway became Interstate Highway (IH) 20, sections of the Meridian Highway were integrated into IH 35, and segments of Old Spanish Trail became IH 10. For Texas engineers, frontage roads were central to interstate highway designs. This differed from other states in three key ways. There were shorter ramp-to-traffic signal distances from highway exits, fewer restrictions on commercial and residential development along ramp and frontage road intersections, and more opportunities for direct access to businesses from the frontage roads.
Improvements to Road Design and Construction
As the state’s highway system grew and incorporated older roads, older bridges and culverts that remained in use were also often upgraded to carry more traffic and heavier loads. Concrete remained a popular bridge construction material across the state and country, and all-welded steel bridges were widely used for long spans to replace riveted steel. THD engineers experimented with light-weight decks that used synthetic materials to lighten structural weight. They introduced composite decks to allow superstructure beams and decks to work as one unit and made advances in techniques such as slip-form pavement sections for faster, less expensive construction. They used asphalt binder for stronger and longer-lasting roads, grooved pavement for safety in inclement weather conditions, and breakaway road signs to reduce injury and fatality in crash situations
THD also standardized interstate appearance with a color scheme and created breakaway road signs. These innovations allowed for massive transportation and infrastructure construction projects during this period of rapid growth in Texas. Click here for more information on the bridges from this era and the innovations and improvements made by pioneering Texas engineers. Since that time, engineers have continued to study road geometry, construction techniques, and materials to make Texas roads safe for the traveling public.